Has Spirit Week gone too far?

The junior class’s 1957 Chevy Bel Air was one of many models that required copious amounts of materials in order to construct. (Albert Li)

Staff Writer
I am a student council member. Joining council was probably one of the best decisions I have made in high school. It led me to make my closest friends, become more involved with University High School, and have the time of my life. However, I left this year’s Spirit Week with conflicting feelings. While I felt immense pride at what we had accomplished, it was offset by a small, troubled part of me that was trying to process just how much I had sacrificed for this glorious night.
The responsibility of building of these decorations is largely borne by the class councils. They spend hundreds of hours at building sessions called workhouses, sacrificing their time, grades, extracurriculars, and mental health in the process. Class councils are responsible for a plethora of requirements for Spirit Night, including major structures, minor structures, locker murals, and interactive elements, all of which count for points in the class competition. Although there is technically no required number of structures, the decorations are scored based on a minimum number of decorations, and in effect scoring guidelines become requirements.
The amount of time put into building the decorations significantly impacts the amount of sleep council members get. In a poll of all four class councils, 97.5% of the members interviewed said that council affected the amount of sleep they got, losing an average of 2.6 hours per night compared to their usual amount of sleep. Considering that council work occurred for over a month, and that most students already don’t get enough sleep each night, 2.6 hours fewer per night is a significant loss.
Most council members saw drops in their grades not only because of sleep deprivation, but also because of the tremendous amount of time spent doing council work rather than homework.  
Teacher Valerie Thompson (Science Dept.) said that “a few kids in each class who are strong participants [in council] don’t show up to class or stay up all night and they’re not able to keep up with their work. The week after [Spirit Week] they get sick and they still have a lot of makeup work.” Many other teachers shared Thompson’s concerns, and were first-hand witnesses of the blight on council members’ grades.
“I would be better off now grade-wise without Spirit Week, but it was worth it for the memories,” Charlie Feuerborn (Jr.), a Junior Class Council member, said. Though many council members interviewed shared the sentiment, they said that Spirit Week was extremely stressful.
In the same survey, 97.5% of council members reported that the preparations for Spirit Week impacted their stress levels. When asked to rate their stress levels in the weeks preceding Spirit Week on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being completely relaxed and 5 being extremely stressed), nearly half of council rated their stress level as a 5. Not a single person reported a stress level below 3.
“I was stressed a lot about fitting everything in, because if you have multiple commitments, it’s really hard to work [council] in,” Austin Kaufman (So.) said. For most council members like Kaufman, attempting to balance other extracurriculars and homework with Spirit Week preparation was most mentally and physically detrimental.
Stress also came from the often short-notice, drop-everything-and-help nature of workhouses arising from inevitable logistic problems. Council members were all too willing to comply, but these last-minute calls necessitated pushing other important obligations to the side, adding to their burden of catching up later on.
However, the problem isn’t just about mental health and academics. Spirit Week has an unspoken financial problem. Councils are given an annual budget of $500 to deter them from spending excessively for Spirit Week. However, every single class spends over that amount, and some classes are several thousand dollars in debt from paint, wood, hardware and transportation expenses.
This puts the class councils in a difficult position, since they do not have any way to fundraise to pay these debts. Consequently, the only way they can bear these costs is to ask for donations from the council members, which can be over $50 per member. The donations, however, often fall short of the total debt, meaning that parents who purchase supplies with the expectation of being reimbursed are never paid back.
In addition, although councils need to report their expenses to ASB, they only need to report how they spend the $500 they are given. After that, however much they overspend is not reported to ASB, and is not even recorded beyond holding on to the receipts. This lack of record-keeping and consequent ignorance of total debt perpetuates a serious hidden issue of overspending.
“I have a serious problem with thousands of dollars being spent on something that’s going to be destroyed two days later,” Thompson also said. It’s the final kicker: that all the hard work is quite literally in the dumpster two days later.
The most concerning part of it all is that this issue will only be compounded each year. The Class of 2018 built the tallest structure in Spirit Night history this year with the Columbia Space Shuttle, beating the enormous Eiffel Tower built by the Class of 2016 two years ago. As senior classes consistently try to outdo each other, future classes will be burdened with increasing pressure and left with impossible standards to meet for Spirit Week.
Spirit Week has incredible merit in promoting school spirit. The amount of sheer teamwork, determination and ingenuity involved in council work is to be highly commended. Spirit Week bonds each class and creates a sense of school unity.
However, it may be time to step back from all the Spirit Week excitement to assess the mental health and financial effects of Spirit Week on our students. Should students really be expected to build a quota of requirements if it costs them dearly in sleep, mental health, grades, extracurriculars and money? Something needs to be done to preserve the fun of council while lessening the strain on its members.
One solution is to have a limit on the number of structures created and their heights. If fewer structures were required, it would greatly decrease the amount of work and structure transportation fees for council members. Limiting the heights of structures would also lessen the workload while still preserving the creativity and teamwork involved to build them.
In addition, if the structures were judged solely on quality rather than quantity, students might have a smaller workload. In other words, if classes were not required to build two major structures to get full points, and if one amazing structure could earn more points than two less impressive structures, it would encourage creativity over size. It would also potentially cut down the amount of materials and spending required.
In terms of finances, the overspending issue could be addressed in a number of ways. First, the councils could be held responsible for logging all finances, to prevent spending without knowing how much in debt the class already is. If all records, even over the $500 budget, were turned in to ASB and factored into the “finances” score category of Spirit Week, it might discourage overspending, because the class councils would want to win as many points as possible by being economically conscious.
It is worth mentioning that $500, based on the scoring guidelines, is nowhere near enough to pay for the Spirit Week expenditures. According to the scoring packet, no more than the $500 grant is to be used on all Spirit Week expenses, including building materials, paper, paint, costumes and transportation fees. The U-Haul alone for Spirit Night can cost over $300, and the costumes for the Pep Assembly can cost $10 a person (around $350 total), if handmade.
Some options might be to increase the grants to class councils, or to have a mechanism for council fundraising. Receiving more money from ASB for Spirit Week seems unlikely, so it would be helpful to let councils fundraise like clubs. Hosting food sales after school, for example, could help reimburse the parents who bought supplies and did not get paid back. Whether it is after school food fundraisers or not, there should be a way for councils to gain the funds to cover the additional costs.
The tradeoffs council members make for trying to outdo their predecessors should not have to be made. The same fulfillment could reasonably be achieved by building slightly fewer and shorter structures. The spirit of decorations and tradition would be preserved, without skyrocketing their debts, straining their grades, and increasing their stress. Spirit Week is a truly wonderful, exciting, and unifying event that no other school comes close to having. It can only get better from here, as long as we are able to continually make improvements to this tradition.